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5 expert tips to manage performance reviews when it hasn't been BAU

It’s been another challenging year with COVID-19 outbreaks, and the consequent restrictions turning even the best-laid plans upside down. It’s one thing to have this affect our personal lives, but how can employers hope to fairly assess employee performance during such uncertainty? 

And more importantly: how can employees prepare for their performance review when they feel the goal posts keep changing?

The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School leadership expert Professor Victor Callan says, “Doing a fair employee performance evaluation even in the best of times can be challenging. During COVID-19, there is considerable ambiguity and uncertainty that flow over and affect how a manager views the performance of employees”.

Elisa Janiec is the General Manager of Uber Eats Hong Kong and graduated from UQ’s MBA program in 2016. She agrees that there are certain challenges to evaluating employee performance and output during a pandemic, including:

  • Accounting for stress and managing ambiguity
  • Ensuring proper expectations were set from the start around performance during remote onboarding of new staff
  • Ensuring employees have the right inputs to deliver expected outputs and clarifying what’s controllable versus not.

Elisa says that during the pandemic,

“We as an organisation became more productive rather than less, supported by work flexibility. But a significant challenge has been managing employee burnout because of the hyper-growth we went through and the changing strategies to adapt as the workload increased.”


Professor Victor Callan and Elisa share their tips for leaders and employees to embrace the opportunities provided by reviewing performance and setting goals for the year ahead.

1. Maintain a sense of consistency

While it might be tempting to postpone or cancel staff evaluations because of the uncertainty of working conditions during a pandemic, Dr Callan recommends they “go ahead as usual, to show continued consistency and fairness”.

“The business will have a well-developed evaluation process that should be followed to provide a sense of order and control. Performance evaluations are also vital for continued staff development and provide employees and leaders the chance to discuss goals, concerns, what needs to continue and what needs further development”, he says.

2. Be flexible and empathetic

While much of the evaluation process should stay the same as usual, Victor says it’s critical supervisors approach performance reviews during a pandemic in a more empathetic and flexible way.

Elisa agrees. “It’s important to manage with empathy and ensure we design the right systems, process, management structures and engagement opportunities for remote work to drive productivity”, she says.

3. Use the evaluation as an opportunity for two-way conversation

It’s important to remember that performance reviews are an opportunity for employees to feed back any questions or concerns they may have to their supervisor. During a pandemic, Victor suggests employees should see this as a time to discuss how well the organisation is seen by them to be supporting them, “both emotionally around work-life balance and technically around having the tools to work more flexibly from home or other locations”.

4. Identify biases

The pandemic has changed many working norms, so performance appraisals are a time to be aware of any biases you might be holding on to as a leader.

As Victor explains, “There has been an ideal worker norm that centres on the employee being seen at work, and now evaluating an employee who is more home-based can introduce more bias in employer evaluations.

“This is the major challenge that managers need to be aware of and to manage well, so it doesn’t impact upon their staff evaluations”, he says.

5. Set goals that reflect the new normal

An important part of any performance review is looking forward and setting goals to achieve in the following year. One question to consider is whether the pandemic has led to certain skills, competencies, and attitudes like adaptability and resilience being more important than traditional KPIs?

Victor argues this is the case. He says, “It is important to pay attention to behaviours and skills that have become more important, such as managing virtual teams, being more flexible and being open to changing systems, processes and practices that are not that well aligned to a different work environment.”

Elisa agrees. She says that at Uber Eats Hong Kong, she reviews staff performance against two broad criteria: the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ (i.e. what you delivered, and then how you delivered it).

“Both are important”, she says, “but adaptability and resilience should form part of the “how”.

“For us, the pandemic was a time that really highlighted those employees who are resilient and innovative: we had to pivot pretty quickly to meet the market. We saw the team really come together across the business, plus some great ideas brought to life very rapidly (think days/weeks) given the need to adapt."


 Elisa’s top tips for setting fair, effective goals during the pandemic

  • Don’t set goals in isolation of market conditions. Set expectations with leadership around the risks, assumptions and dependencies of meeting goals based on market conditions.
  • Create a safe space around innovation and self-reflection by confirming that it’s ok to fail, as long as you had a strong hypothesis/rationale going in, and you and the business meaningfully learn from the experience.
  • Remote work is the new norm, so it’s important to encourage the development of skills that will support this flexibility (such as communication skills) and embrace ambiguity.
  • Focus on inputs (versus output alone), given the likelihood of variability in market conditions.
  • Plan goals for different scenarios to help drive bottom-up and top-down alignment to set final targets.
  • Set expectations around regular re-forecasting.
  • Set goals in collaboration with employees to ensure buy-in, establish clear definitions of roles and responsibilities in comparison to other team member contributions, and ladder up goals to stakeholder and organisation priorities.

If you are a supervisor, remember that:

  • There’s no such thing as over-communication when it comes to setting expectations. 
  • It’s your job to provide clear guidance on what to prioritise versus what to park (and regularly check in with employees to see if work plans are still relevant).
  • Targets should be revisited often to ensure relevance and reforecasted if necessary.
  • Feedback should be regular and timely throughout the year (don’t wait until the performance review to share feedback for the first time).

The pandemic taught us all a lesson about differentiating between what we can and can’t control.

Ultimately, if supervisors are flexible in evaluating staff pandemic performances and set fair goals to achieve in future, employees and leaders can continue to have productive performance conversations and develop staff capabilities to drive business performance.  

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